During two days, the world media attention was focused on the first public conversations held by the governments of Cuba and United States in over five decades. More than 400 journalists covered the historic meeting that took place behind closed doors at the Convention Center. What has changed after the conversations headed by Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal? The visible results don’t seem to be so encouraging, but perhaps the most important aspects is that the dialogues are going to continue, which is not to be underestimated if we keep in mind the clashes between Havana and Washington for over half a century.
Several important statements were issued at Havana’s Convention Center, from the US assertion related to the Adjustment Law—which grants all Cubans that arrive in US soil the residence permit—, the increase in the number of visitor visas in 2015, to the mutual recognition of the possibility of cooperating in such areas as air security and aviation, response to the spillage of hydrocarbons, war against drug trafficking, terrorism and epidemics.
The opening of embassies was one of the key topics tackled by both delegations; although they did not announce a possible date to make it real. From Washington, John Kerry said that he will travel to Cuba when it is “appropriate”. “I’m ready, when the moment is right, to meet my counterpart, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. We’ve held phone conversations and we will meet when it is appropriate”, the Secretary of State said; meanwhile, Cuba recognized that the regulations approved by Barack Obama and implemented since January 16th “are in a positive direction, as they modify some aspects of the Blockade.”
During the press conference granted after the talks, one of the questions asked to Mrs. Vidal – director of the United States Division in Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Ministry – targeted one of the matters that raise more expectations among the Cuban people: the possibility of an increase in the number of American travelers visiting the island nation in 2015. The diplomat answered that she cannot speak for sure about that increase, but “analysts of the area believe that it can be a reality as there is a General License, so we’ll have to see how the numbers do in upcoming weeks in order to have a clear idea on the growth in terms of the trips from the United States to Cuba”, Vidal explained.
What could happen in the near future in terms of American people traveling to Cuba? The Obama Administration pointed out that the people-to-people category stands, as it refers to groups traveling with pre-designed programs that include exchange activities, and the Blockade legislation is still being applied to specifically ban tourism trips. The new measures just represent “an expansion of trips under general licenses for twelve categories authorized to travel to Cuba”; but… according to economist Antonio Díaz Medina, a Professor at the Tourism Faculty of Havana’s University, in an article published on Temas magazine, all the conditions are on the table to foster the growth of in the number of US visits to Cuba.
Five years ago, with the first measures adopted by Obama after he took office, there was a boom of Cuban-Americans traveling to the Island, and that’s the reason why United States presently ranks second in the list of visitor-outbound countries, only surpassed by Canada. Most of the visitors are Cuban-American citizens, but over 90 thousand Americans visited Cuba in 2014, with authorized trips, and a smaller group arrived in the country after having evaded the restrictions. Cuba’s Customs authorities have decided not to stamp their passports, so they don’t have problems when returning to the US; moreover, they have a very flexible and quick policy to deliver tourist visas.
New regulations that took effect
The regulations implemented by Washington, starting in January 16th, establish that the 12 authorized travel categories will be covered by general licenses. According to Díaz Medina, this entails “full authorization to travel and make transactions related to each category, which means not having to ask for specific permission to do it or accounting for the trips with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC, Treasure Department), assuming that each traveler fulfills the requirements.”
Out of the 12 categories with General License, 7 had been already given: family visits, official visits for US governmental officers and governments from other countries, as well as US-based international organizations; journalists; professional researches and participation in professional events; educational trips; religious activities and business travels related to export and import activities, or the transference of pieces of information or information materials, as well as other authorized export transactions by means of the current regulations. Furthermore, 5 categories have been given General License: educational activities; activities developed by private foundations, research or educational institutes; public performances, clinics, workshops, sports events and other competitions and exhibitions; support to the Cuban people and humanitarian projects.
Regular flights USA – Cuba?
So far, non-stop flights between United States and Cuba are operated by charters, which have OFAC license, along with Havanatur Celimar, the Cuban inbound agency and operator. With the new OFAC regulations, the flights between both countries have no longer to be operated by charters. From now on, regular flights could be established, an interesting scenario not only for American airlines, although the opening of such kind of flights doesn’t seem to be a fact in the near future.
Since 2010, Obama authorized the departure of flights to Cuba from 19 of the main US airports, Díaz points out; nonetheless, due to the lack of markets only two airports have offered non-stop flights over the past five years: Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. The progressive increase in the number of American travelers, authorized by 12 categories, would encourage other airports to launch non-stop flights between both countries. For instance, such companies as American Airlines, Delta and United have license to fly to Cuba, but they haven’t used it to date. That reality could change in 2015 if the demand grows.
Another significant detail: Americans could pay in Cuba with their credit and debit cards; besides, such organizations as travel agencies, tour operators, airline operators, universities and other would have the possibility to open bank accounts in Cuba. All these elements help simplify and reduce the costs of procedures. Díaz Medina explains in his article that, in 2015, the total of US visitors could go beyond the 150-thousand mark and the figure would be higher than 200 thousand by 2016.
The talks between Havana and Washington promise to be long and quite complicated, because of the deep differences in terms of economy and human rights; but while the politicians try to see eye to eye, the contact between two people that are physically separated by only 90 miles, but five decades away, seems to be an unstoppable process.